ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – A day of reflection and new beginnings was capped by Helio Castroneves' celebration on Dan Wheldon Way.
After performing his famous fence climb in front of the Turn 10 grandstand to thank the spectators following his victory in the IZOD IndyCar Series' season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the Fort Lauderdale resident jumped on top of the concrete barrier and patted the street sign that was unveiled March 7 to honor the memory of the 2005 race winner and series champion.
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“You can never question God’s mysteries, and today, for me, I ended up stopping at Turn 10,” said an emotional Castroneves, who raised his head and pointed to the sky as he stood next to the green and white sign. “Honestly, I did not plan it. It was just the way it happened, and there was the sign Dan Wheldon Way. For me, and for all of us -- the drivers and the fans -- not having him here certainly we’ll miss.
“But we’ve got to remember him as he lived, the way he lived, and continue to pray for his family.”
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The three-time Indianapolis 500 champion became the first three-time winner on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit, and he celebrated his first victory since Twin Ring Motegi in September 2010 with typical exuberance. Maybe there was extra sense of relief for the Brazilian, who finished 11th in the 2011 championship standings and is still seeking his first series title.
“It’s been a little while, but it never gets old,” Castroneves continued. “I did say out loud, ‘If I start in the top six, I’ll win this race.” And we did it; we are here in Victory Circle.”
Castroneves, who started fifth in the Chevrolet-powered No. 3 Shell V-Power/Pennzoil Ultra Team Penske car, led Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon across the finish line by 5.5292 seconds. Following the final round of pit stops, Castroneves overtook Dixon on the outside of Turn 1 for second place on Lap 72, and three laps later passed JR Hildebrand entering the sharp right-hand turn for the lead and kept Dixon at bay the remaining 25 laps.
"It's a terrific run," team owner Roger Penske said. "It's going to be a great season, and it's great to be back racing."
Dixon has been the runner-up in all of Castroneves' victories at St. Pete.
“We seemed to have the strategy right, and Helio was just really fast,” Dixon said. “He was fast, but also able to save fuel. So we did a really good job for what we did at saving fuel, but obviously we didn’t have the speed and we seemed to burn the tires up really quick. I haven’t finished here in a while, so it’s nice to come out here in St. Pete and get some good points.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay finished third in the No. 28 Team DHL/Sun Drop Citrus Soda car and Andretti Autosport teammate James Hinchcliffe was fourth in his IZOD IndyCar Series debut in the race.
“It was a fuel strategy race and the Chevy engine was getting great fuel mileage, but we had to really take our time to finish to the end,” said Hunter-Reay, who earned his second St. Pete podium finish. “We took a gamble on making it two stops instead of three and that’s just part of the game. It’s good to get a podium under our belt. Today, most of all though, we have Dan on our minds and that wound is still fresh.”
Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske finished fifth after starting on the front row next to teammate Will Power, who led the initial 11 laps and finished seventh.
“I’m very happy for Helio,” said Power, who heads to Barber Motorsports Park this week as the defending race winner. “He really deserves this victory and it’s great for Team Penske to start the season with a win. Our Verizon car was very good. We just got shuffled back a bit there after the first pit stop and we just couldn’t make up the ground we needed.”
Simon Pagenaud, who qualified sixth in the No. 77 Schmidt-Hamilton HPO Motorsports car, had to drop back to 16th at the start because of a rules infraction relating to an unauthorized engine change two days earlier. He recovered to sixth. E.J. Viso, Charlie Kimball and Justin Wilson also grabbed top-10 spots.
Reigning series champion Dario Franchitti finished 13th and Rubens Barrichello, making his IZOD IndyCar Series debut, was 17th.
Dixon, who qualified seventh, led a race-high 37 laps to gain two bonus points. There were nine lead changes and three caution periods for 15 laps (no contact between cars) as the new car and engine manufacturer competition between Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus made their season debuts. Chevrolet took the early lead in the manufacturer points race with 9 to Honda's 6 and Lotus' 4.